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UMN grad union files union cards, ready for election

University of Minnesota graduate student workers publicly launched their unionization efforts in February.
Graduate student workers launched a card signing campaign on Feb. 20. Photo courtesy of GLU-UE.

UPDATE (3/18): The Graduate Labor Union – United Electrical (GLU-UE) announced Friday the union has filed more than 2,800 union cards with the Minnesota Bureau of Mediation Service (BMS) to hold an election.

The union needed to receive signatures from at least one-third of University of Minnesota graduate student workers for the BMS to authorize an election. They received signatures from about 65% of graduate student workers.

In the announcement, the union called on the BMS to “conduct an election without delay.”

“I think we’re coming together because we’re underpaid, our fees are too high, international students are unfairly burdened, and we don’t have fair grievance procedures,” Logan Stapleton, a graduate student worker in computer science, said in a press release. “We’re excited to move towards an election as quickly as possible so we can really fight for tangible changes.”

University graduate student workers went public with unionization efforts after launching a card signing campaign on Feb. 20 following multiple failed attempts to unionize.  

Graduate student workers formed the GLU-UE in hopes to raise wages, create more job security and establish opportunities to negotiate workplace issues. This action comes a year after graduate student workers released a petition urging University administration to increase their salaries, which garnered 120 pages of signatures. 

In the first 12 hours, more than 1,700 graduate students signed union cards. Once the GLU-UE receives signatures from 30% of the roughly 4,300 graduate student workers, they will be able to submit their cards to the BMS to authorize a vote among graduate student workers. According to the union’s website, they will submit the cards once they have a supermajority. 

Graduate student workers attempted to unionize in 2012, but workers ultimately voted down the union

GLU-UE’s organized labor goals: wages, benefits and international student support

The GLU-UE aims to address a wide range of workplace concerns, but the foundation of students’ unionization efforts is to increase graduate student worker wages. 

Organizers are requesting the University increase their annual salaries to align with the cost of living in the Twin Cities. The current average annual salary for half-time graduate assistant appointments is $23,000; the cost of living for a single-person in Hennepin County is about $37,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

“Graduate students are unionizing because we need better working conditions and a living wage,” Matt Kornberg, one of the GLU-UE’s College of Liberal Arts representatives, said. “The cost of living is going up significantly …  most graduate students make $23K — that’s substantially below the living wage.” 

Along with increased wages, the GLU-UE also wants more comprehensive benefits, according to Kornberg. These include reduced copay and expanded access to the Graduate Assistant Health Plan (GAHP), more affordable childcare and parental leave. 

Unionization would allow graduate student workers the ability to negotiate for transparent and secure workplace policies and provide them with formal grievance procedures, according to University graduate student worker David Munkvold.  

The GLU-UE is also requesting the University cover the International Student and Scholar Services fees and provide access to more legal and financial services to increase support for international graduate student workers. 

Reasons for unionization center on finances 

Before starting grad school at the University, Munkvold was planning on putting a downpayment on a house. When he decided he wanted to continue his education after working for a few years, he realized his wage as a graduate student worker wouldn’t cover both a mortgage and tuition.

“For me, going into grad school was kind of a sacrifice,” Munkvold said. “I was like, ‘okay, instead of pursuing my career goals and my material goals, I had to sacrifice one for the other.”’

Beyond struggles to save money, University graduate student workers cited issues with funding their living expenses as one of their motivations to unionize. Many graduate student workers are unable to get second jobs to supplement their income because they typically work more than the 20 hours per week they are paid for, according to University PhD student Lilly Webster. 

“There’s a wide variety in the amount of work that is required for different teaching assignments,” Webster said. “It’s not consistent from semester to semester how much time you’re gonna need to spend on teaching.”

Shortly after the GLU-UE’s public launch, the Council of Graduate Students (COGS) passed a resolution endorsing the unionization efforts on Feb. 23. COGS has worked to support graduate students in their efforts to increase wages, but these efforts have taken time away from their primary function, according to Mary Kate Wolken, a representative to the Student Senate Consultative Committee for COGS. 

“What COGS is meant to do is to advocate about graduate student concerns and also to press for changes in a wide range of policy, not necessarily restructuring the working conditions,” Wolken said. 

University community input and administrative response 

University administration has outlined how they plan to address the group’s unionization efforts. If the graduate student workers succeed in unionizing, the University is willing to negotiate in good faith with the GLU-UE, according to the Vice President for Human Resources Ken Horstman. 

“Our most valuable asset is our employees, including graduate assistants, who are on academic and professional journeys here at the University,” Horstman said. “If graduate assistants vote to unionize, the University will negotiate in good faith with the union, as we do with all of the unions representing University employees.” 

In addition to negotiations, the University is considering including student fees in graduate assistant tuition packages and re-examining the cost-share for dependent care health plans. 

Other University unions have publicly supported the GLU-UE, including Teamsters Local 320 and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3800. 

“Having more co-workers that are unionized helps hold University administration accountable and makes advances for all of us,” AFSCME Local 3800 President Cherrene Horazuk said.


Clarification: The GLU-UE needs signatures from 30% of the roughly 4,300 graduate student workers to submit their cards to authorize a vote. According to the union’s website, they will submit the cards once they have a supermajority. 

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